Despite the strike taking a toll on releases, this wasn't a bad year for Tamil cinema. Here's my list, in order of date of release.
We had to wait almost till the end of April to see something ambitious, something auteur-istic. Karthik Subbaraj's "silent movie" (with freaky sound design by Kunal Rajan) turned out to be his most accessible, most "fun" outing since Pizza – not just a genre thriller, but an emotional horror-drama, with a touch of eco-activism. In other words, goodbye to the dense layers and intricate textures of Iraivi and Jigarthanda – but the superlative filmmaking is intact. How will this joyfully idiosyncratic filmmaker transfer his sensibilities to a massy Rajinikanth movie? That may be the most interesting question of 2019.
What if Engeyo Kaetta Kural (1982) was made in a less judgemental era? You'd get this morality tale by Kaali Rangasamy, which shows a surprising amount of compassion to its heroine, who leaves her kindly sanitation-worker husband and begins a relationship with a software dude. I wish the film had expended similar empathy to the city folks (They drink! They have casual sex!), whose portions end up laughably simplistic. But given the sickening moralism in Tamil cinema, Oru Kuppai Kathai must count as progress. The film begins with the line "To err is human" and ends with "To forgive is divine." This applies as much to the wife who strayed as the husband who deceived her. They're both punished. Sounds like equality to me.
The latter film (by Ganesha) came later in the year (November), but I'm clubbing these two joyous B-movies together because they show what's lacking in the "mass" movies made by bigger directors, with bigger-name stars. Maruthupandian's Asuravadham is a series of mind games centred around a strong, silent protagonist, a relentless pursuer like the unseen truck driver in Steven Spielberg's Duel (but he's the good guy). Thimiru Pudichavan doesn't have as much craft, but its writing is just as good. Both films have a refreshing sense of a self-awareness (they know how ridiculous their premises are), and work hard to make the action-movie clichés seem less clichéd.
As much as I liked 96 (coming up later), this Yuvan Shankar Raja production was, for me, the year's best romance. Director Elan takes a well-worn story of a middle-class boy and upper-class girl and makes it seem like a more realistic Selvaraghavan film. These people aren't archetypes. They're people you'd find at work, or in the house next to yours. The film feels less like a movie, more like life. Elan is one of the few Tamil filmmakers who not only respects women, but also gets them. The character played by Raiza Wilson is a revelation, a beautiful mix of "Indian" roots and "Western" sensibilities. The film's advertising made me think it would be a disposable rom-com, but there's genuine emotion at work here.
Lenin Bharathi's moving drama is filled with painterly shots — say, a blacked-out screen that's lit up when a door opens and light floods in – but the film's meaning rests in the repeated wide shots of people dwarfed by their unforgiving surroundings. I wished for some variety of emotion in the non-professional cast, but that's a small complaint in the face of the film's strengths, like its use of time. When nothing seems to be happening time crawls. But when the milestones of a life unfold, it's all compressed into a song. The narrative, thus, gets demarcated into two distinct tracks: the documentary-like (i.e. the timeless) and the drama (the timebound). It's beautiful.
Manoj Beedha's whodunit wears its retro-coolth like a second skin. The writing, combined with Antony's sensational editing, shuffles between past and present and also moves to parallel events – and it's thrilling. And yet, in a way, the director desensationalises the thriller. Instead of edge-of-danger scenes, we get mundane repetitions. Instead of the ever-sharpening focus of a crime drama, we get the sprawl of an existential epic. The understated cinematography (Rodrigo Del Rio Herrara, Saravanan Ramasamy) is filled with classy wide shots and natural light, contrasting the sunny outside with the murky happenings indoors. The second half doesn't live up to the earlier promise, but with this kind of style, I didn't really mind.
The year's best film, by a distance. Mari Selvaraj provides a compassionate counterpoint to the cinema of Pa Ranjith, and yet, the anger is intact. In Ranjith's films, the awakening comes through external forces. This is a far more internal film. It feels personal in a manner that resembles reading someone's diary. The helplessness and humiliation that the protagonist experiences aren't a one-note beat. This is a remarkably level-headed drama that tackles both the without and the within. (Even as we are oppressed, we can end up oppressing ourselves.) As a "nice boy" who transforms into an Angry Young Man, Kathir gives an extraordinary physical performance, the year's best. In his close-ups, he takes us into his character's soul.
Thank heavens for this film and Vada Chennai. They show that, even in these ADD-ed times, our audiences aren't averse to long narratives as long as something sustains them throughout. That "something", in this touching anti-romance by C Prem Kumar, is the low-key nature of the happenings. It would have been easy to unleash torrents of tears at each what-could-have-been moment between the protagonists, Ram and Janaki, but the film earns our tears with its "pazhaya vaasanai," the scent of nostalgia that the heroine refers to. At a time when panicked editors jettison entire scenes and keep hyper-cutting between frames, how refreshing to see a film that turns lingering and wallowing into an art form.
Ditch the unpromising beginning and the drawn-out closing portions of this serial-killer thriller, and you have a series of superbly staged, superbly edited set pieces. (At times, I was watching the film slit-eyed.) Ghibran's terrific score is the aural equivalent of bad airplane food — it makes your tummy queasy. The motive behind the murders is underwhelming, but director Ram Kumar teases the boundaries of his "U/A" rating, with impressively disturbing imagery that's closer to an "A", like a claw hammer positioned under the chin of a petrified little girl. Like the film, the visual crawls into your eyeballs and gnaws at the brain.
All Anbu wants is to become a carrom champion. But life intervenes, and he turns into a gangster, and finally, a Saviour. From this slender thread, Vetri Maaran weaves a glorious tapestry of loyalty and violence and poetic justice, imagining existence as a carrom board, with every move causing collisions and ricochets. The biggest problem is that a much longer film has been condensed to fit a running time of less than three hours. But the stunning set pieces (especially the jaw-dropping action block at the interval) more than compensate. A classic case of parts being so much greater than the whole that savouring them becomes its own kind of satisfaction.
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam, for being one of the year's better hero-oriented outings. The action-overdose at the end is sickening, but Suriya is in good form and Vignesh Shivn's light-hearted take on a Shankar movie is the kind of gallery-pleasing entertainer you wish more big stars would make… Savarakathi, for being a black slapstick-comedy version of a Mysskin movie (its directed by his brother, GR Adithya). The exaggerations and playful editing hark back to the days of silent cinema, even if the film is more interesting to analyse than stay consistently invested in… Pa Ranjith's Kaala, for being a far better fit between the sensibilities star and director than the earlier Kabali. There's so much packed into it that the glaring screenplay flaws don't make it any less interesting to write about, mull over… And Vasanth's moving Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, which is yet to see a theatrical release (which is why it's not in the list above). But if it's playing at a film festival near you, drop everything and run for it!
*This list includes films released till mid-December.